Ruth Frost spent 30 years working in the family business, handling inventory, payroll and other office functions for Frost’s Garage, her husband’s automotive repair shop in Hampden. For many of those years, she used a desktop computer fitted with the specific programs she needed to do her job.
“I did what I was trained to do, but I never used the computer for home,” she said. “I don’t know how to do what a lot of people do.”
Now 64 and retired, she’d like to set up a Facebook account so she can stay in touch with her children, grandchildren and other family members. She wants to use her new Lenovo laptop to download photos from her camera and organize them by year and topic. And she knows access to the Internet can make it easier and more convenient to search for businesses, services and other information — a big attraction, especially since her elderly mother recently moved in with her and the transition is claiming a lot of her time and energy.
Frost purchased her laptop recently at the Best Buy in Bangor, which sent its Geek Squad service team over to help her set it up. Her husband, Buzz, who is also retired, doesn’t have a lot of interest in the computer situation, but they have adult children in the area who would gladly help troubleshoot problems going forward.
“But I’d like to be able to do this on my own, without bothering the kids,” Frost said.
So she was glad to learn about a new service being offered at Eastern Area Agency on Aging in nearby Bangor. Beginning in August, EAAA will be offering free, 6-week classes in digital literacy, aimed at bringing seniors up to speed with basic computer skills.
“It’s a huge need,” said Tom Boyd, who handles the agency’s information technology needs. “Especially in our area, there are lots of people who have no idea how to use technology.” Boyd said the agency receives many calls from older adults asking about training, beginning with basics such as turning on a computer and how to use the mouse.
In addition to using tools like email and social media like Facebook for staying in touch with friends and loved ones, Boyd said seniors increasingly benefit from having computer skills for conducting the business of their daily lives, from signing up for Medicare, Social Security and assistance programs to accessing medical records, paying bills and scheduling appointments.
“Everything is going digital now,” he said, and older adults need to be comfortable using online technology without being vulnerable to scams, viruses and other dangers.
EAAA, located on Essex Street in Bangor, was prepared to provide classroom space and an instructor for digital literacy classes, Boyd said, but didn’t have computers for people to learn on.
But a bit of serendipity has resulted in the recent donation of six like-new desktop computers, complete with large, 23” monitors, keyboards and mice — “the whole deal,” Boyd said. The machines are loaded with the popular Windows 7 operating system and the Microsoft Office suite of applications, including the word-processing program Word.
The computers have been professionally refurbished by PCs for Maine, a statewide program that accepts high-quality machines recycled by corporations and sells them at a steep discount to nonprofit agencies and low-income families and individuals. PCs for Maine is a program of Information Technology Exchange, a nonprofit founded in 2002 in Belfast that aims to improve access to technology through a variety of activities, including the rehabbing and sale of used equipment to qualified buyers.
“We have over 200 machines in Maine public libraries,” said cofounder Jodi Martin. “Any 501(C)3 in Maine can get technology from us.” The desktop machines cost about $200 each and come with a two-year warranty.
But many nonprofit agencies in Maine run on a bare-bones budget, and EAAA is no exception. While the agency has the computers it needs to conduct its day-to-day internal operations, it didn’t have the cash needed to purchase a bank of even second-hand desktops for teaching digital literacy. But OTT Communications, which is based in New Gloucester, Maine, and provides telephone, Internet and other services to some of the most rural areas in Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and West Virginia, stepped in to help.
“One of our goals is to bring technology to people who don’t have it and teach them to use it,” said company communications manager Tracy Scheckel. It’s not just philanthropy, she noted — it’s in the company’s interest to develop demand that will in turn support an expanded rural infrastructure. OTT sponsors computer how-to classes for people of all ages throughout the territories it serves, but it’s been hard to identify an agency in the Bangor area to provide classroom space and an instructor.
“It occurred to us that [EAAA] would be a great venue for teaching these computer literacy classes,” she said. OTT purchased the six desktop computers from PCs of Maine in Belfast and had them delivered to the EAAA offices in Bangor. Classes are free and open to all, regardless of age or income.
The first class will meet on Wednesday, August 9 from 2-3:30 p.m. and then weekly for a total of six weeks. Each six-week session will cover all the basics: the machines themselves, the programs they use, navigating the Internet safely, setting up and using an email and Facebook account.
“It’s very basic, for someone who has just gotten a computer or who is about to purchase one,” Boyd said. “We already have a list of about 12 people for six spots. But if someone has a laptop they want to bring in, there’s room [in the classroom].”
Ruth Frost is looking forward to bringing her new laptop to the class and learning how to use it for the projects she has in mind. “It’s not that I’m brand new to computers, but I only ever used it at work and never for myself,” she said. “I get the devil all the time because I’m not on Facebook yet.”